Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Case of the Bluffing Referees: Corruption allegations swirl around contract privatizing El Paso truancy enforcement

An extraordinary,  near-mind blowing tale of graft and greed out of El Paso left this reader's jaw adrop. (The story by Zahira Torres is also an early frontrunner for Understated Headline of  the Year: "New Beginnings anti-truancy program failed to deliver on promises to EPISD," El Paso Times, April 28.) Despite the bland headline, with every unfolding paragraph it's clear this is a much more insidious tale involving not just failed policy but a grotesquely deformed, insular and graft-driven juvenile justice system.

In short, for a pricetag of nearly 20 times what it would have cost the County Attorney to do it both legally and in-house, El Paso juvenile court Judge Alfredo Chavez convinced the school district to contract with a private company to "bluff" truancy enforcement -- a tactic that worked only until students and their parents figured out that the private "referees" had no authority to carry out their threats (which included dropping students from school rolls and even ordering youth to Mexico). This multi-million dollar contract went to men now under indictment on El Paso bribery charges related to a second judge on the county juvenile board. Now, everyone is under investigation.

Back in 2004, El Paso ISD asked juvenile court Judge Chavez to "assign two part-time referees -- court employees who could hear judicial cases -- to the truancy program," reported the El Paso Times. The County Attorney came forward with a proposal to do the job for around $50,000. Instead, Judge Chavez brokered a contract between El Paso ISD and "New Beginnings, a local company run by Cirilo 'Chilo' Madrid and Ruben  'Sonny' Garcia, would spearhead the program. Both men now face federal fraud charges for allegedly bribing County Judge Dolores Briones in exchange for her vote on an unrelated government contract for another company, LKG." Reported the Times, "New Beginnings is now being investigated by the FBI for the $3.2 million in contracts it obtained from the El Paso Independent School District over the five-year period ended in 2007."

New Beginnings reportedly couldn't and didn't perfom the court functions being privatized, instead constructing what seems from a distance almost a surreal Potemkin Village where company officials would bamboozle kids and their  families: "as a private company, New Beginnings did not have the authority to impose legal sanctions on truancy offenders.," wrote Torres. "The company instead would hold mock court hearings before students reached the stage that a real court appearance was necessary. It was a program that one district administrator called 'a bluff factor.'"

So, instead of working with the County Attorney's office to actually establish a truancy program - a subject fraught with its own issues independent of alleged corruption, to be sure - Judge Chavez pushed to privatize the process for $925,000 per year, having it overseen by company-paid "referees" with no legal authority who tried to "bluff" youth into accepting their unofficial edicts, which some unwitting youth probably did, at least in the beginning.

It gets worse, though, when we get to the judgments being meted out by corporate "referees": "notes from a meeting in 2006 in which participants discussed problems with New Beginnings, mentioned concerns with ordering students who were younger than 18 to be dropped for attendance, ordering students to return to Mexico, the truancy court's lack of law enforcement authority and the fact that New Beginnings did not file cases with the justice of the peace courts but instead left that task to school districts." (emphasis added, and then some: Santa Madre de Dios!)

Pretty soon, even the kids saw through the scam and the program ended in 2007 because:
El Paso Independent School District leaders saw a steady decline in attendance rates while the company had the truancy court program.  
State records show that the attendance rate at the district was 95.4 percent in 2004-05. That number dropped to 95.3 percent in 2005-06 and further decreased to 95.1 percent in 2006-07.  
Mark Mendoza, the district's former pupil services director, cited those figures in 2007 when he persuaded school board trustees to end the contract with New Beginnings and implement an in-house dropout recovery and truancy program. The program run by the EPISD does not include the truancy court component. 
"There was a bluff factor that was used," Mendoza said. "People thought that it was a court and, so, during their initial time with New Beginnings, the attendance increased temporarily. Once they figured out that this was not a court and that there was really no teeth behind it, then the attendance for the students would drop in every single case."
At least two of the six county juvenile board members, both judges, have been accused of steering lucrative juvenile contracts in El Paso to Mssrs Madrid and Garcia:
The board then in a 6-0 vote approved appointing two part-time referees who would be paid by the district's contract with New Beginnings. The board members were Chavez, Judges Patrick Garcia, Alex Gonzalez and Bonnie Rangel, Justice of the Peace Guadalupe Aponte and County Judge [Dolores] Briones.  
Briones pleaded guilty on Dec. 9 to a charge of conspiracy to commit theft or embezzlement of federal program funds. She was implicated in a scheme to take kickbacks from a federal grant linked to LKG Enterprises.
As mentioned, this jaw-dropping tale left Grits feeling downright naive. Juvenile  boards are a seldom-examined political backwater where few reporters venture, and quite frankly even fewer understand what they're reporting on. I can't help but wonder how many other similar examples one would find if reporters or auditors comprehensively examined school-district and/or juvenile board contracts on truancy in other jurisdictions? Would they discover similar shennanigans in Dallas, or Bexar?

For that matter, this catastrophic failure makes me wonder at the overall strategy of Texas post-2007 juvenile justice reforms, which have been recently called into question for other reasons. The Legislature's big-picture strategy under Chairmans Sen. John Whitmire and Rep. Jerry Madden has been to rapidly de-incarcerate youth prisons and shift focus to grant-funded community-based programs administered locally. El Paso ISD's contract with New Beginnings ended just before the 2007 statewide reforms. But still, this sun-town saga makes me wonder whether adequate oversight infrastructure exists to monitor those contracts?

Grits tends to operate on the assumption that most folks are acting in good faith until they give me reason to believe otherwise. This bizarre, corrupt episode makes me call such assumptions into question. It would never occur to me that local juvenile judges might so  brazenly abuse their authority, though I guess after the judge in Pennsylvania was convicted for taking kickbacks for  sending youth to a private facility, one shouldn't be surprised. Even so, I must admit, I am.

Read the full story at the El Paso Times, it's quite a tale.


Doc Ellis 124 said...

Greetings Scott


Thank you for writing about this essay

Doc Ellis 124

Section 1983 said...

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance,
regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the
District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any
citizen of the United States or other person within the
jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges,
or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable
to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other
proper proceeding for redress.

Will the plaintiffs implead EISD board members as well as the learned Judge Chavez?

Anonymous said...

One guess as to the political party affiliation of all concerned????!!!!

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, 3:06, the Courts rewrote Section 1983. While the text says "Every person," the Courts added exceptions. The Courts have give judges and prosecutors absolute power to deprive people of rights with no recourse. Any other goverment official is protected by qualified immunity which means they get to do those things and get away with them 95% of the time.

Anonymous said...

anon 4:55,

Do you actually believe the political party declared by the politicos is an issue? Especially considering how many judges, for example, change their party prior to an election based on the winds of change? Simply look at Dallas County. After almost 50 years involved in the justice system with a perspective from both sides of the badge, I know better.:~)

Anonymous said...

Yes, probably time to look at what juvenile boards are doing.

Anonymous said...

Not only Juvenile Boards but JPD's statewide. While there are TJJD board members running around telling TJJD how to operate their institutions (Giddings & Evins). Someone (Mike Ward) should look closely at monitoring visits made by TJJD to local county facilities yearly and see how well they ar3e complying with all the standards. Many of these Texas Chief's live in glass houses and tell the institutions how to run their business but seldom face the music on how they are running theirs. TJJD has records on all audits of all countiees operating facilities.

Anonymous said...

You are correcto mundo! Sort of like creating a problem, pointing out the problem, and then running in to offer the solution. Been going on for decades.

Start lifting rocks and no telling what will run out from under them.